Who’s in the Kitchen: A Quartet of Culinary Narratives
And How It Got This Way
By Paul Freedman
451 pp. Liveright. $39.95.
Contrary to what sniffy foreign gourmets may believe, the United States does have its own cuisine, Freedman argues in this sprawling history. But it’s defined less by ingredients and recipes than by regionalism, modernity and variety. Relying on sources that range from menus and cookbooks to the odd detective novel, he tracks the interaction among these forces from the colonial period to the present.
Although his early chapters on regionalism are burdened with a somewhat shallow understanding of culinary tradition, Freedman’s analysis gathers steam as it moves into the 20th century. Technological innovation, the embrace of convenience and Americans’ enduring quest for health and self-improvement combine to shift common diets (goodbye, bacon-and-egg breakfasts) to “modern” foods (hello, dry cereal) while masking the blandness of those meals if not with flavor then at least with choice (Limited Edition Lucky Charms!).
Gender and ethnicity figure intriguingly in the process, as purportedly health-minded women are blamed for stripping food of its pleasures, and immigrant-owned restaurants serving adapted versions of faraway cuisines sprout up to satisfy the American desire for just the right degree of novelty. It’s not until the “magical” decade of the 1970s that the long winter of Jell-O and TV dinners begins to turn. Ahead lies our own era, when corporate giants may still control supermarkets and seed supplies, but farmers’ markets abound, the chef is celebrated and the pleasures of the table — from reinvented succotash made with heirloom vegetables to “authentic” ramen — are applauded at every turn.
WOMEN ON FOOD
Edited by Charlotte Druckman
400 pp. Abrams. Paper, $30.
Among the more dramatic changes of our culinary revolution has been the recent and urgent attention given to the longstanding discrimination against and silencing of women in the food world. This freewheeling anthology offers a corrective of sorts, bringing together more than 100 writers and chefs in a collection that combines original essays with interviews and surveys on everything from sexual harassment to memories of maternal cooking (or not).
Although the contributors come from diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds, most — like Druckman herself — are established food writers living on the East or West Coast, which can make the collection feel a little claustrophobic. The surveys, intended to broaden the scope and lighten the mood with rapid-fire answers to questions like “Are there any words or phrases you really wish people would stop using to describe women chefs?” (not surprisingly “women chefs” is a top contender), somehow only increase the echo chamber effect. But Druckman’s interviews with prominent figures — Rachael Ray on what success has done to her personal relationships; Kim Severson of The New York Times on what it’s been like to break some of the biggest food stories of the past decade — are enlightening. And the essays, which approach their subject from angles that range from the personal to the historical to the political, are a thought-provoking tonic. The collection is very much a “variety show,” as Druckman calls it, but in that variety lies a potent reminder of just how much women shape and are shaped by the culture of food.
A Life in 12 Recipes
By Jean-Georges Vongerichten with Michael Ruhlman
285 pp. Norton. $26.95.
One side effect of the rise of the celebrity chef is a proliferation, from just about anyone with a professional claim to an apron, of memoirs. More than most, Vongerichten has earned his. At restaurants like Vong and the elegant Jean-Georges, he redefined luxury by brightening the classics of his French homeland with infused oils and the vibrant flavors of other cuisines. And as one of the busiest of globe-trotting chefs, he has brought that invigorated combination to diners from Hong Kong to Las Vegas. But there is little invigorating in this book, whose familiar take on the profession could have been written 50 years ago. Here is the maman whose genius at the stove teaches the boy to love food; there is the grueling apprenticeship in which the chef-to-be imbibes hoary mantras like “work clean.”
A few standout moments, like the young chef’s introduction to the electrifying flavors of Thai street food, add excitement, but there’s little narrative tension to this memoir. Even the painful loss of a Michelin star is quickly turned into a bromide about learning from failure. Disappointingly, Vongerichten chooses not to reflect on — or even mention — the significant changes he has witnessed during his decades in the profession. A confession to punching an irritating employee, for example, occasions no searching reassessment of the kitchen’s bullying culture. Nor does the location of his flagship restaurant warrant more than a glancing mention, which, considering that it sits on the ground floor of the Trump International Hotel, seems like a missed opportunity indeed.
THE BOOK OF EATING
Adventures in Professional Gluttony
By Adam Platt
258 pp. Ecco/HarperCollins. $27.99.
Platt’s memoir is a timely and delectable smorgasbord of dishes and dishing. It begins as a bildungsroman of sorts, set among the dumpling shops and noodle houses of Taiwan and Tokyo, where, as a diplomat’s kid, young Platt acquires a love of Mongolian hot pots and onigiri along with a more general lesson in the world-expanding pleasures of the table. That lesson serves him well years later when, as the newly minted restaurant critic for New York magazine, he finds himself confronted with plate after plate of sad grilled salmon he must not only consume but find new ways to describe.
Happily, Platt doesn’t confine himself merely to what he ate, but takes a broader view of the whole mishegas that is the restaurant experience today. He discusses, for example, the changing role of media, and gossips with equal and self-deprecating verve about the wounded egos of poorly reviewed chefs, the idiosyncrasies of other critics and his own folly. (This includes, but is not limited to, an ill-begotten star system, a B.M.I. that stubbornly resists all attempts to restrain it and a penchant for certain foods strong enough that chefs begin putting dishes they recognize as “Plattnip” on their menus.)
Occasionally, the vividly described lists of what he ate become wearying, but that’s probably due to envy and hunger more than anything. Otherwise, this honest, revealing and funny book is as deeply pleasurable as the soup dumplings Platt learned to love as a boy.
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